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UK Armed Forces in Middle East

Volume 749: debated on Monday 29 April 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the role of the UK armed forces in the middle east.

The Prime Minister and Government Ministers have regularly provided updates in Parliament on the recent role of the armed forces in the middle east through written and oral statements, in addition to responding to written questions. As has been said previously, publicising operational activity to Parliament in advance could undermine the effectiveness of operations and risk the lives of armed forces personnel involved.

The UK has provided assistance to our allies and partners in the region. The Ministry of Defence has provided support to facilitate the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and we continue to work with the FCDO. Our armed forces personnel have played a critical role in working to establish more routes for vital humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza and in the delivery of support, in co-ordination with the US and our international allies and partners. To date, the UK has conducted nine airdrops as part of the Jordanian-led mission, dropping more than 85 tonnes of vital humanitarian aid of prepackaged halal meals, water, flour, baby milk formula and rice to Gaza.

UK military planners have been embedded with the US operational team to jointly develop the safest and most effective maritime humanitarian aid route. RFA Cardigan Bay is sailing from Cyprus to support the US pier initiative to enable the delivery of significantly more lifesaving aid into Gaza. The UK Hydrographic Office has also shared analysis of the Gazan shore with US planners to support the initiative. The RAF also sent additional aircraft to the region to protect our allies and support de-escalation, culminating in the UK armed forces shooting down a number of Iranian attack drones. The House will understand that for operational security reasons, I cannot comment on the specifics of that activity.

As stated by the Prime Minister on 15 April,

“Our aim is to support stability and security because that is right for the region, and because although the middle east is thousands of miles away, it has a direct effect on our security and prosperity at home, so we are working urgently with our allies to de-escalate the situation and prevent further bloodshed.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 23.]

We are directing all our diplomatic efforts to that end. I will not comment on media leaks and speculation, but I can assure the House that the Government are taking all measures to support our allies and partners in the region. We are pressing for a sustainable ceasefire that will enable the release of hostages and provide the people of Gaza with the essential assistance and humanitarian aid that they need.

I welcome the Minister back to the Department in his new post. Of course, the Defence Secretary should be here; he has made only one oral statement on the middle east in more than two months.

As the Minister said, our UK armed forces are reinforcing regional stability, protecting international shipping, defending partner countries and delivering desperately needed aid to Gaza. We are proud of their professionalism, and across the House we pay tribute to their work, but the agonies of the Palestinians in Gaza are extreme. Children are starving, families are dying, and famine and disease are taking hold. Humanitarian help must flood into Palestinian hands, so we welcomed the ninth RAF airdrop last week, but why has there been only one sea shipment of UK aid in more than six months, and none this year? What are the Government doing to open up Ashdod port?

We welcome the new role for RFA Cardigan Bay in helping to build the temporary pier. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is demonstrating that it provides vital naval support. Is it protected from new civil service cuts? Have Ministers resolved the issue of the potential strike action? What is the Defence Secretary doing to raise rock-bottom morale in the RFA? Weekend reports suggest that UK troops could be deployed to deliver aid on the ground in Gaza. Will the Minister confirm those plans? How will the Defence Secretary report to the House, and ensure that Parliament has a say, on any such deployment?

The Defence Secretary seems to be doing the bare minimum on the diplomatic front. Why has he made only one visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 7 October? We need an immediate ceasefire now, hostages released now, and unimpeded aid now. We need a political route to securing a long-term two-state settlement. Where the Government pursue these aims, they will have Labour’s fullest support.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and his warm welcome. He asked a series of pertinent questions, which I will seek to cover off. He asked about our efforts on maritime delivery. Clearly, the deployment of RFA Cardigan Bay is leaning into the prospect of a far greater flow of maritime aid through the Cyprus humanitarian corridor, which will seek to substantially uplift that delivered so far. That will have an important impact on the extent to which Ashdod can come into play. We make the point regularly to our Israeli colleagues that opening Ashdod would be a critical enabler of a dramatically increased flow of aid, which is seriously needed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay. Colleagues will have noticed in last week’s statement to the House that there has been a very substantial uplift in defence funding. An additional £75 billion over the next six years means that morale across all three services and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will be resilient, and higher than before. That uplift is a vote of confidence in our capabilities, of which we should all be proud—I certainly am.

I will not comment on speculation that there might be a ground role for UK forces. It would not be right for me to comment on speculation. We are very clear about the current remit. RFA Cardigan Bay is there to provide living support for the US troops involved in the construction and operational delivery of the JLOTS—joint logistics over the shore—platform.

The Defence Secretary will, as is his wont, continue to report frequently to this House, and to make oral and written statements. I am very pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman would like to see the Defence Secretary at the Dispatch Box more often. I will relay that desire to him when I see him. He is a busy man, but he knows that his first duty is to be in this House. His visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories was important; his is a global role. To categorise his one visit as disproportionate, or a lack of interest, is uncharitable to say the least.

In all earnestness, we share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a far greater flow of aid and humanitarian support is contingent on a sustainable ceasefire. This House will know that we call on Hamas to lay down their arms and release the hostages; that is the surest route to finding that sustainable ceasefire.

I commend the Government’s determination to get aid into Gaza, and I commend the work of the RAF, RFA Cardigan Bay, UK planners and the Hydrographic Office. As the Minister is aware, I would not expect him to comment on speculation, but some of the best laid and best intentioned plans can run into problems. Can he assure the House that we would only ever contemplate putting UK boots on the pier if appropriate force protection was in place?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee, who speaks with characteristic expertise. He is absolutely right that it would be improper for me, as a Government Minister, to comment on that speculation.

Can the Minister confirm that the US maritime humanitarian aid corridor is required only because the Israeli Government will not allow the port of Ashdod to be used to receive the appropriate amount of aid for northern Gaza? Are the UK Government content with that stranglehold over the people of Gaza? The working assumption is that a nation will be driving trucks of aid across this American facility, but will that nation be the UK? If it is, what is the risk assessment if UK troops potentially step up for an operation that goes where American troops fear to tread? Getting aid into Gaza to alleviate the unspeakable torment of the Palestinians must be a good thing, and the professionalism and capability of UK troops is beyond question, but are Ministers seriously suggesting that the best that Euro-Atlantic allies can muster is British troops? Have Ministers forgotten how British forces operated in Palestine in the Arab rebellion of 1936? The Palestinians have not. Any risk calculation must command more robust analysis, rigour and humanitarian ambition, not simply UK Ministers’ ambitions for positive headlines.

Well, Mr Speaker, that was a mixed bag of questions. I will answer in the spirit of sincere debate. We should say that we are leaning into the Cypriot and Jordanian humanitarian efforts. That is very important, because those efforts need to be grounded in the region. Solutions to the problems of the region lie in the region, but clearly we have a key enabling role, along with the US. The hon. Gentleman invites me to comment on speculation in the media, which I will not do. Nor will I dwell on his reference to the history lesson from 1936. We should be upbeat and proud of the way we have significantly leaned into the delivery of humanitarian aid. That is a key component of stabilisation, and of any prospect of peace in Gaza.

One of the main strategic aims of Iran, Russia’s ally, in supporting what Hamas did in October last year was to suck western powers into the middle eastern theatre, thereby diverting them from Russia’s existential conflict with Ukraine. May I urge the Minister not to comment on the suggestion that we might have British boots on the ground in the Gaza strip, but to take the message back to the Secretary of State that this would be a completely insane idea? It would be far better to have moderate neighbouring Arab states deal with any distribution of aid that we have facilitated as a result of the viable RAF and sea power that we have rightly exercised.

My right hon. Friend is right: the answers to the humanitarian and political challenges in the region lie within the region. I entirely agree with his analysis. He made a relevant and good point about the requirement for us to maintain focus on our efforts to support our Ukrainian friends in defending their sovereignty. That is why last week we announced an additional uplift in our annual support for Ukraine to the tune of £500 million, bringing this year’s support to £3 billion—a record amount.

From our work on the Defence Committee, I know that the armed forces are running hot. Obviously, the events in the middle east over the last six months or so have put much greater strain and pressure on our armed forces. What is the Minister doing to ensure that our armed forces get proper rest and recuperation, and that we improve the resilience of our assets?

We are increasing funding for defence to record levels, which increases the armed forces’ capacity to train, rest, and attend to all the areas of their lives other than operations. That is a huge vote of confidence in the esprit de corps of our armed forces. We are taking defence investment to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. It is a tremendous boost, which will filter down and improve retention and effectiveness right across the board.

I was in Israel earlier this year and met senior Israel Defence Forces personnel, who assured me that they are doing everything in their power, and are working with allies, to increase aid to Gaza. It is the right thing to do, and we must continue those efforts, but it is patent that Hamas are obstructing the distribution of aid within Gaza—another reason why we need to support Israel in defeating Hamas. Will the Minister assure the House that if and when Israel goes into Rafah, where several Hamas battalions remain, and where senior Hamas operatives and the hostages are based, UK support will remain resolute and steadfast, as we support Israel in finishing the job and eliminating Hamas?

We are clear-eyed in our assessment of Hamas: we regard them as a terrorist organisation that has prosecuted an atrocity. We call on them to lay down their arms and to release the hostages. That is the precondition for any kind of meaningful and sustainable ceasefire.

The Government have so far resisted having a proper debate and a vote on British military engagement in the middle east this year. The engagement of the British Army in Bosnia in the 1990s started out as being for the purposes of humanitarian aid, but was subject to mission creep as British soldiers were attacked by the warring parties. In 2006, John Reid said:

“We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Will the Minister assure us that if the Government proposed using British troops on the ground in Gaza, they would first grant this House a debate and a vote on the matter?

The lessons of Bosnia are interesting, and are not lost on Government Members. The hon. Gentleman should have no doubt that Ministers and the Government will remain fully accountable to this House.

May I declare an interest? Members of my close family have been, and are, involved in military operations in the middle east.

Bearing in mind my experience in Northern Ireland—seven tours—I am slightly worried that if our armed forces open fire in the middle east, which they have done, a foreign country will, at some future date, put them before an international court and charge them. I hope the Minister will declare that such a thing will never happen.

I am grateful to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman for his questions; he speaks from a position of knowledge. He should be assured, as should the House, that our forces in the region operate with the full force of the law behind them on the basis of collective self-defence.

Israeli media are reporting that the International Criminal Court could be about to issue an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials for the litany of war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. It is further reported that the United States Government are working to prevent justice from being done and to stop the ICC issuing arrest warrants. Does the Minister agree, after more than 34,000 Palestinians—women, men and children —have been slaughtered in Gaza and Israeli bombings have obliterated and decimated entire Palestinian neighbourhoods, that Benjamin Netanyahu should be held to account for his horrific crimes?

Order. We have to be careful: the question is quite framed. I am sure the Minister might want to pick part of that to answer.

Hamas are a terrorist organisation that hate the United Kingdom and everything that we stand for. It would therefore be deeply unwise for the UK to commit British servicemen and women, whether on the ground or on the pier in Gaza. It is for precisely that reason that the White House has categorically ruled this out. Will the Minister take the opportunity to do the same, so that we can reassure our constituents that we do not make an inadvertent mistake, and that British troops will continue doing what they should be doing, which is facilitating the complete eradication of Hamas?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s analysis and his comments about Hamas. Other than that, of course I will not comment on speculation in the media.

What discussions has the Minister had regarding UN security forces accompanying trucks to enable them to move into Gaza in the light of the impediments they are facing, and also rebuilding infrastructure so that trucks can travel across the country to deliver crucial medical and other humanitarian aid?

A great deal of energy from Ministers and officials is going into the ongoing discussion about how to operationalise the greater flow rate of humanitarian aid going into Gaza, so the hon. Lady asks a relevant question.

The Minister is rightly reluctant to discuss the roles, dispositions and locations of British forces in the middle east, but could he again confirm to the House that the requisite force protection will be factored into all operational level planning, and also that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the UN could be coerced into taking a more active role in Gaza?

My hon. Friend also asks a relevant question, and I can give him that assurance in relation to the deployment of RFA Cardigan Bay.

Some 34,000 people are already dead in Gaza, many are dying now in Rafah from wholly preventable conditions such as measles because of a lack of sanitation and medical care, and the Israeli bombardment is still going on. That is the biggest problem for getting aid in. What pressure is the Minister putting on the Israeli Government to cease the bombardment of Gaza, to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and to ensure that we will not be deploying British troops anywhere on the on the ground in Gaza, the west bank or any other part of the region and that instead we will search for peace and for justice for the people of Palestine?

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the protection of civilians. We continue to make the point to our Israeli friends that they must seek to protect civilian lives, but of course the root cause of this is the atrocity committed by Hamas. For peace to be secured, all that would have to happen is for Hamas to lay down their arms and release the hostages.

Iran continues to present one of the most pressing and dangerous threats to the middle east and to global stability. With the increasing emphasis on the need for an integrated defence strategy comprising different nations of the region, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an ongoing, vital role for British forces to play, as they did so ably on the night of 13 and 14 April?

I wholeheartedly agree, and we should pay tribute to those who courageously played an active role in that defence of our collective security. Undoubtedly, British armed forces have a sustained and hugely important role to play in bringing peace and stability right across the region.

The UN reports that 80% of all those in the world facing imminent famine are located in Gaza. With over 200 humanitarian workers killed by Israeli forces since October, a ceasefire is essential for the effective delivery of aid and for preventing famine in both the short term and the long term. How can the Government justify their continued refusal to back calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire?

The hon. Lady is correct that a ceasefire is needed, as it is the way to assure the flow of aid that Gazans need. The precondition of that ceasefire is for Hamas to lay down their arms and to release the hostages.

I was in Israel on the night of the Iran attacks, and I saw the jets in the sky, David’s Sling and Iron Dome dealing with the ballistic missiles as they came in. I felt very proud to know that our forces were involved, and the Israelis were very grateful for our activity.

One group of people in Gaza who are not being provided with aid or proper medical checks are, of course, the hostages. Last Monday, I spoke to the parent of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was last seen on 7 October being bundled into the back of a truck with his arm and hand missing, having had a grenade thrown into his shelter. A video was released on Wednesday, and it was the first sight of him. He looked in a very distressed state. Can the Minister assure me that we will continue to do everything we can, militarily and through intelligence, to help Israel to locate these hostages?

I can, of course, give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is a highly sensitive subject, and if he would care to raise the case with me individually, we will do what we can to follow up.

Two months ago, the House passed Labour’s motion calling for an immediate ceasefire. We believe that Hamas must immediately release their hostages, but Israel must also look at releasing its prisoners. There has to be an immediate and unimpeded supply of aid into Gaza, but I am really concerned about UK forces getting involved. We should rely absolutely on aid being delivered by the charities and voluntary organisations on the ground. What is the Defence Secretary doing with our allies and regional partners to secure an immediate ceasefire?

We continue to make the point that Hamas must lay down their arms and release the hostages. That is the precondition for peace.

The key problem, as my hon. Friend will know, is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are appropriating aid meant for the Palestinians. What steps are our armed forces taking to ensure that aid gets to those who really need it, not the terrorist networks? What steps are they taking against Hamas’s terrorist tunnels under the Egyptian border? British armed forces could play a significant role in working with Israel to dismantle the tunnel networks.

My right hon. Friend asks a very good question, and a huge amount of effort is going into this. We are energetically leaning into the prospect of a greater degree of aid flowing through the Cypriot and Jordanian humanitarian corridors, and the JLOTS temporary pier capability could be an absolute game changer.

The Government continue to provide huge sums of taxpayers’ money for arms and weapons for Ukraine, but minimal funding for humanitarian aid for Gaza. Does the Minister believe that the UK public share the Government’s spending priorities?

Despite some positive noises coming out of the middle east about a truce, for my constituents in Bolton it is deeply worrying to see reports of an increasingly likely ground offensive in the southern city of Rafah. The Minister spoke about not wanting to see any more bloodshed, but if there is a ground offensive, more blood will be shed. What are our Government, the Ministry of Defence in particular, doing to avoid bloodshed happening in Rafah and to prepare for different scenarios?

We always make the point to our Israeli colleagues that the protection of civilian life is imperative. We acknowledge that Israel has an absolute right to self-defence, and we hope that Hamas will recognise that the path to peace lies in laying down their arms and releasing the hostages.

My understanding is that the British Government do not support the ground offensive by the Israeli military in Rafah. Will they therefore use all the leverage at their disposal, including withdrawing arms export licences, if the Israeli Government act against British policy?

On the middle east, it is a decade since this House voted to support the UK’s joining the global coalition against Daesh. Although territory has been liberated, does not the recent strike by the RAF against a rocket launcher being used to target coalition forces underline the need for a sustained, long-term commitment to defeat and destroy terrorism?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and we should be grateful for the role played by the RAF. It is a reminder that the price of peace is eternal vigilance.

I thank the Minister for his responses. I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement last week about the extra defence spending. It is important that we support innocent victims who cannot protect themselves. The UK’s role in the middle east is much appreciated, acclaimed and respected. Does the Minister agree that in response to recent increased Iranian threats, for instance with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps being responsible for Hamas terrorist attacks across Gaza and the broader middle east, we must do whatever we can within our budget to encourage de-escalation and to try to prevent further attacks by Iran and its supporters?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he rightly says that putting in 2.5% of GDP by 2030 will provide that boost and ensure that we have the operational capability to achieve that global response that we need to keep our country safe.

We talk about 500 trucks a day because that was the pre-war number, but that was when Gaza had a relatively functioning economy and an agricultural sector to back it up. Therefore, more than 400 trucks will be needed, by land and sea, and so I thank the armed forces for their help in delivering aid and in helping to build the pier. What pressure are we putting on Israel to get more aid quickly delivered by land, which is the best and quickest way of doing it, and on the use of UNRWA in northern Gaza, as it has the most effective system to get aid to the right places quickly?

My hon. Friend is correct: we do need to increase that flow. What would be a game changer is opening the port of Ashdod, and we continue to make that point forcefully to our colleagues.

Does my hon. Friend agree that His Majesty’s armed forces could be providing any humanitarian support, now or in the future, only with Israel’s total co-operation and that it should be recognised for that? Has he noted also that Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow 3 defensive systems, among other things, would, in effect, be part of the protection of His Majesty’s and other allied forces? Does he agree that that makes even more nonsense of the anti-Israel interests’ call for an arms embargo against Israel, because if allied forces, including His Majesty’s forces, were to be acting in the region, they would be looking for support from Israel itself?